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Illingworth House: 29 - Joe's Passchendaele

....The artillery lay down a barrage for hours and as soon as they let up, the Guards went over. They'd been given tots of rum prior to the charge and when the order came, they scaled the trench ladders and went over with fixed bayonets. The artillery had dropped a smoke-screen, so that all Joe saw at first were the vague figures of his comrades staggering through the mud like himself. All around them bullets whined and cracked and men dropped like flies, but still Joe kept going crazed and half-drunk - frightened as he'd never been before....

Joe faces the horrors of Passchendaele.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddingtton-Feather's novel please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

It rained heavily all that autumn, till by the end of October the Passchendaele salient was a quagmire. Joe was sent into action near Ypres, where his battalion was bogged down in the trenches. The battle had raged since June, with mines and artillery reducing the land to a morass of mud, bodies and tangled wire. Mangled corpses lay unburied for days as attack and counter-attack produced stalemate. When the battle ended in November, half a million men lay dead.

Joe was sickened by it all, but it was the first bayonet charge that haunted him the rest of his life. Everyone in his platoon was well over six feet tall, giants compared with the German infantry facing them. They'd been at the front less than a week when they went over the top attacking the German trenches two hundred yards away. In between lay a shell-pocked sea of mud and barbed wire.

The artillery lay down a barrage for hours and as soon as they let up, the Guards went over. They'd been given tots of rum prior to the charge and when the order came, they scaled the trench ladders and went over with fixed bayonets. The artillery had dropped a smoke-screen, so that all Joe saw at first were the vague figures of his comrades staggering through the mud like himself. All around them bullets whined and cracked and men dropped like flies, but still Joe kept going crazed and half-drunk - frightened as he'd never been before.

Suddenly the German ramparts loomed before him through the smoke and they were into the trenches fighting hand-to-hand. Some surrendered at once at the sight of the battle-crazed giants bearing down on them, and a young German fell on his knees, grabbing Joe's legs and pleading for mercy. But another German with his bayonet fixed and ready was lunging towards him.

Joe tried to kick away the youngster holding onto his legs, but he was too terrified to let go, so Joe jabbed at his breast. He missed and his bayonet went through the boy's mouth and into his throat. He pulled the blade out and jabbed again, this time into his breast, and the boy crumpled. Then Joe faced the German almost on him and with his longer reach, bayoneted him, too. He never forgot their screams nor the grey, anguished accusing looks on their faces.

The Guards held the German trenches a week, before they were retaken in a massive counter-attack and the Guards had to pull back to their old position. They were just half the strength they'd been when they'd launched the first attack the previous week.

Joe won his Victoria Cross not long after. He had been at the front barely a month yet it felt like years. Ever since they'd arrived their position had been raked by German machine-gun fire, and one day they were ordered to charge two nests of gunners on the rise before them. It was a suicidal move as the Germans were ready for them.

Earlier, the Black Watch had tried to take out the nests, and as Joe's unit began the next assault, he saw the Scots straddling the barbed wire like limp scarecrows, their sodden kilts flapping idly in the wind. Many lay obscenely on the ground soaked in their own blood.

And like them, the Guards were mown down by a hail of bullets as soon as they cleared the parapets. Two bullets hit Joe's helmet and shoulder and he dropped. All around him others fell like ninepins, silently or screaming in pain and yelling for help.

The firing ceased momentarily then began again as the machine-gunners changed trajectory and began firing at a new wave of infantry to Joe's right. As the new company advanced towards them, the German gunners switched concentration in their direction and Joe took his chance. He crawled slowly round the back of the first nest and by the time they realised what was happening, Joe was blazing away with his rifle till all the crew were dead.

Then he took out the second nest and leaned against the parapet gasping, bleeding badly from his wounds. He staunched his head and shoulder with field dressings then waited for the English infantry to arrive. And as he waited he noticed one of the German gunners' jacket had been ripped open. His wallet lay strewn across the floor. Among its contents was a photograph. Joe picked it up out of the mud. It was the dead German's wife and family. A beautiful blonde haired girl about the same age as Helen smiled back at him. Joe gently placed the picture in the dead German's tunic. Then he passed out.

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